Sondheim’s Into the Woods at the Landor

Into the Woods
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim to a book by James Lapine

Narrator / Mysterious Man – Ian Dring
Cinderella – Sue Appleby
Jack – Jonathan Eio
Jack’s Mother – Tricia Deighton
Baker – Leo Andrew
Baker’s Wife – Sarah Head
Cinderella’s Stepmother – Judith Paris
Florinda – Jessica Boshier
Lucinda – Kellie Higgins
Little Red Riding Hood – Rebecca Wicking
Witch – Lori Haley Fox
Cinderella’s Mother / Granny / Giant – Sarah Dearlove
Wolf / Cinderella’s Prince – Ryan Forde Iosco
Rapunzel – Jenny Perry
Rapunzel’s Prince – Luke Fredericks
Steward – Eric Nordell
Mayhem – Andrew Keates
Mischief – Frank Simms

Robert McWhir – Director
Iain Vince-Gatt – Musical Director / Piano
Robbie O’Reilly – Choreographer
Nina Morley – Set & Costume Designer
Richard Lambert – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 23 September, 2009
Venue: Landor Theatre, Clapham, London

Christmas comes early this year at the Landor pub theatre in London’s Clapham with Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods”. Pantomime in general has fallen in to disrepute and there is often only a token nod towards the original stories taken from the work of the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault. Back in 1987 Sondheim and Lapine produced the definitive fairytale story that could well replace any further Christmas pantomime versions of the tales of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk because “Into the Woods” combines all their stories into one hilarious plot that appeals to children and grown-ups alike.

“Into the Woods”, a brilliant and magical take on the pantomime genre, was inspired by Bruno Bettelheim’s book “The Uses of Enchantment” and covers many serious themes such as parent/children relationships, growing up, accepting responsibility, morality and the fulfilment of wishes. Technically, “Into the Woods” is a difficult show to do, because of all the different characters that inhabit the convoluted plot, and the difficulty of coordinating them. With exploding cows, witches who transform and a giant and his wife, it’s not the easiest of shows to get right. And throughout the dialogue the music continues, underscoring the action in the scenes.

The original London production of “Into the Woods” was at the Phoenix Theatre in 1990 and the first revival was at the tiny Donmar Warehouse. Since then it has made regular appearances on the fringe, the latest of which is at the small but perfectly formed Landor Theatre in Clapham. This address is no stranger to the work of Sondheim, having presented his rarely performed “Do I Hear a Waltz?” (music by Richard Rodgers) and what must have been the tiniest but totally successful and sold-out production of “Follies” ever to hit the boards.

There are four stories taking place in the Sondheim/Lapine narrative involving the familiar fairytale characters of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and the lady with the long hair, Rapunzel. Interwoven among these is a story about a Baker and his Wife, a childless couple who have had a spell cast on them by a neighbouring witch because the Baker’s parents stole her magic beans. In order to have a child they must go into the woods and find a red cloak, a milk-white cow, hair as yellow as corn and a golden slipper. These are the props that allow them their encounters with Red Riding Hood, Jack, Rapunzel and Cinders.

All the characters set out on a journey into the woods where anything can happen – exciting, frightening, unusual or magical. They all have a plan: Cinderella wants to go to the King’s festival, Red Riding Hood is to deliver food and wine to her grandmother, Jack is off to sell his pet cow, and Rapunzel is singing and combing her hair, awaiting her release from captivity. The first half of the show is the quest for their objectives and the often-comic incidents that occur during the journey. The mood changes after the interval, however, when the show takes on a darker hue (if that is possible), becoming a “timely moral allegory for adults”.

Here everything begins to go wrong. Jack sells the cows for beans but they grow into a beanstalk which he climbs, only to find a giant with a magic hen and a harp that plays itself. When the giant falls to earth, the characters are threatened with extinction. The voice of sanity through all this is the Narrator, who keeps his audience abreast of the sorry facts. The stories are very cleverly interwoven on account of Sondheim and Lapine’s skill, but the real pleasure, however, comes from Sondheim’s immaculate score which is truly spellbinding. If anybody is in any doubt about the melodic nature of Sondheim’s music, then this is the score to listen to, from the jauntiness of the title song through ‘Hello little girl’, the sinister song of the Wolf, or ‘Agony’ sung by the two Princes as they discuss their love lives, to the Witch’s yearning ‘Stay with me’ or ‘The last midnight’ and ‘No one is alone’, these are all great and often moving songs.

Director Robert McWhir has a cast to die for in this production. You need good voices for Sondheim and everybody here sings brilliantly and they fit the characters to a tee. Sue Appleby’s Cinderella is a feisty young woman, and Rebecca Wicking’s Red Riding Hood is suitably obstreperous. Jonathan Eio’s Jack is the epitome of innocence, while his frustrated Mother (Tricia Deighton) is at her wits’ end. Leo Andrew and Sarah Head as the Baker and his Wife scheme to good effect to achieve their desired objective, while Ryan Forbes Iosco as the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince is lip-smackingly evil as both. Jenny Perry as Rapunzel warbles well from her high tower, pursued by Luke Frederick’s simpleton of a Prince. Lori Haley Fox’s Witch is not someone you would wish to meet in or out of the woods. She does, however, sing like a dream. Holding it all together is Ian Dring’s Narrator who keeps the show and its personnel going in the right direction until they have no further need of him.

Musical direction by Iain Vince-Gatt on piano brings Sondheim’s score to real and ringing life and Nina Morley’s sets and costumes are a delight. The set is made of giant volumes of Grimm’s and other fairytales, through which the characters enter and exit. It is difficult to imagine a better production of “Into the Woods” than this. It may be small in scale but it has a heart as big as Epping Forest. Remember: “You go into the woods, / Where nothing’s clear, / Where witches, ghosts and wolves appear. / Into the woods and through the fear, / You have to take the journey.” And the journey to Clapham is certainly worth taking for this show.

  • Into the Woods is at the Landor Theatre, 70 Landor Road, London SW9 until Saturday 17 October 2009
  • Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m.
  • Tickets 020 7737 7276
  • Landor Theatre

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